5 Life Lessons I’ve Learned by Cooking

originalMy youngest son(4) is hard headed, stubborn and defies parental law. This may transfer to a prosperous career cooking—behind bars. He gets up first thing in the morning and slices his own apples. The first time was frightening for two reasons; he could hurt himself; and the second, terrifying fact that he might love food and cooking enough to become, someday, a professional chef.

Not to say my career cooking hasn’t provided the very apples he cuts, in ample supply no less. Contrary to my harsh, jaded and often disgruntled writings about life in an apron, I have been fortunate to realize financial comfort, a stable family life and a position in a restaurant that allows me to exercise the nagging creative half of my otherwise logical and realist brain. Still, cooking in a commercial kitchen is a job reserved for people with a high threshold for pain, stress and self-sacrifice. I would consider myself a failure as a father if I don’t pass down that wisdom to my sweet children.

If they’re anything like me, they won’t hear a word of it until it’s too late. My father bestowed plenty of wisdom on me, most of which I ignored. When my adult life started I was so entrenched in the restaurant business that it became like a father to me. It’s teaching me, often the hard way, the following life lessons that I’d be lost without.

1. You get more bees with honey, and that goes great in tea when you’re not feeling well. But you work through it, you suck it up and give it all you’ve got.

There’s a machismo exchange every time someone calls out of work. When the phone rings and the manager is called to answer it, and he comes back with a look of frustrated disappointment, and the early shift cooks are re-stocking for the night rush, they all know. Inevitably one of them is asked to stay, and the rest of them compare how many times they’ve called out in however many years they’ve been working. The fact is, everyone does get sick. Everyone has to call out at some point or another. Not everyone remembers; I’ve only called out 4 times in my life. For professional cooks, the reason is never the common cold, rather, DUIs, fights, child birth, court custody battle, etc.

I learned that you get more bees with honey, and bee stings are not a valid excuse to call out of work. I learned to be tough—to be stupidly tough.

2. If you want something, ask for it. Ask nicely, please.

“I haven’t had a raise in three years,” a cook once told me. He went on to say that when he started working he wasn’t getting paid the agreed sum from his hire. “You asked for a raise?” I questioned. “I’m going to now, this is getting ridiculous.”

He allowed himself to fall through the crack of a small restaurant. In larger restaurants, and institutional settings, there are few owners and managers who just offer raises unsolicited. If you want a raise, a day off for your pal’s wedding or if your paycheck bounces, ask.

If you need a bag of spinach, say, “Will you please get me a bag of spinach from the walk-in?” Don’t say, “Get me spinach, you imbecile!” You’ll get spinach either way, but the former will probably mean the cook will still be there in three years getting you spinach. Of course, there are times when it is better to drop the pleasantries. For instance, “Will you please get me a fire extinguisher from the wall behind the reach-in, kind sir?” would be better said, “Fire extinguisher! Hurry!”

I learned to ask nicely. Will you please sign up for my email newsletter? Thank you!

3. Speaking of fire extinguishers, I can control fire. It’s pretty neat.

My name, Damkoehler, means Charcoal Burner by the Damn. If my ancestors knew how much I love cooking with gas they’d disown me.

Whether it comes from charcoal or propane, I’ve learned that fire burns. I’ve also learned burns only hurt when I’m thinking about them. That is, when I’m forced to focus on service, on the business at hand, I don’t feel the burns. The same goes with other pain, even emotional.

The lesson is if something bothers me, whether it’s a burn, an unpaid bill or an argument with my wife about the bill, come service time, nothing hurts. If I can force those pains out of my mind during service, I can do so at other times, too.

When the burn blisters, though, it must be dealt with. By that point the pain is dull, and with a level head a bandage can be applied. Same goes with the bill, and the argument. Deal with it, but don’t let it stop you from doing what needs to be done—the people must eat.

4. I’ve learned why old chefs know so many tricks. I’ve also come up with a few of my own. And I’m not even that old.

Mistakes happen. In the kitchen, probably more than at a construction site, but they happen there, too. When I worked part time as a contractor’s apprentice I was uneasy about cutting a certain piece of expensive wood. It occurred to me that if I cut a little too small, I would be wasting a $60 section of plywood. I thought, if I screw up in the kitchen I know so many tricks to fix it, but if I screw up on that plywood, I’m through.

Nearly every trick I’ve ever learned was the result of a mistake. A server forgot to ring in stuffed scrod, and they need it right away. Nuke the scrod for a minute to get it started, throw it in a steamer, then finish it in the broiler, all the while browning the stuffing in a pan. This trick will save 12 minutes of cooking time. Or the mistake may have been time management, and suddenly you are getting slips and not set up; out come the prep tricks. The delivery guy didn’t bring the right food; out come the substitution tricks. Or the mistake might have been trusting someone to properly season a soup; out come the seasoning tricks.

If you’re the new cook who made a mistake, watching in awe of the chef’s miracle fix, know it’s because he made the same mistake himself, and I’ve learned it made him a better cook.

5. Seriously, don’t take yourself too seriously.

Cooks who survive do so because they learn these lessons, most of all this. There’s too much hands on, physical labor to be done to snub other people, because you think you’re better than them, or because you’re going places and they aren’t. When the pot is turned on, and the oil’s in, the onions don’t care if you graduated at the top of culinary class, or if you worked in a three star Michelin restaurant—they need to be added before the oil burns. So get to it.

You’ll enjoy the process a lot more if you have pals by your side to kid around with. The moment you start to take yourself too seriously, those pals will get their laughs at your expense.

I learned to have pride in hard work; be proud of a job well done. But I mustn’t have so much pride that cutting an onion is beneath me, or I won’t jump in the middle of the buried dish pit.

There’s a popular saying among veteran cooks, “This place was here before you, and it’ll be here when you’re gone.” No single person is greater than the restaurant. Or, are they talking about life?
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But I won’t do laundry. Seriously, I’m way too important for that.

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